Preparing for Lent

In the late 1970s I read a story that came from Punch (a magazine dedicated to humor and satire).  As the story went, a woman went into a jewelry story in Sydney, Australia and asked to look at cross necklaces.  The clerk dutifully brought a number of them out and laid them on a black velvet tray.  He looked up and asked her, “Are you interested in one that is plain or one with a little man on it?”

I remember gasping that anyone could be that oblivious of the central symbol of the Christian faith.  Time wise this incident took place at the beginning of the so-called post-Christian era (or post-Christendom).  At the time (i.e. the end of Christendom) a person could reasonably assume knowledge of Christian symbols and their meaning.  Almost forty years later, such an assumption is dangerous if not foolish.  At our recent “Clergy Day Apart” we heard a series of marvelous presentations by Dr. Stephen Seamands on his book Give Them Christ: Preaching His Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension and Return.  Overheard in the conversations during a break after Seamands had presented a lecture on preaching the cross and crucifixion was a comment by a pastor that went something like this:  “I’ve always thought we were a church of the incarnation and resurrection.  Why can’t we just skip over that stuff about the cross?”  (I promise you I am not making this up.  I am also hopeful that there is far more to the conversation that I missed!)

Here is a clue.  We have crosses on our altars for a reason!  The Apostle Paul put it bluntly.  “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I didn’t come preaching God’s secrets to you like I was an expert in speech or wisdom. I had made up my mind not to think about anything while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and to preach him as crucified” (I Corinthians 2:1-2).

Central to the Christian faith is a conviction that we cannot get to Easter except through the cross!  Last week I taught a class on preaching for the West District clergy.  As a part of that class I shared a model set of sermon outlines presenting a series on the meaning and importance of the cross for the Christian faith.  I entitled it “Give Them Christ: Preaching Lent Through Easter” and based it on a rough outline of one chapter of Stephen Seamands book and the Revised Common Lectionary (for Holy Week).  I offer the outline for reflection and use for those so inclined.

Give Them Christ:   Preaching Lent Through Easter

Ash Wed                      The Reality of Sin                                  Psalm 51:1-17
1st Sunday                   The Bizarre Symbol of Our Faith        I Corinthians 2:1-5
2nd Sunday                  The Scandal of the Cross                     I Corinthians 1:18-25
3rd Sunday                   The At-One-Ment of the Cross          Matthew 16:13-23
4th Sunday                   The Suffering of the Cross                  Matthew 27:33-54
5th Sunday                   The Love of the Cross                          John 19:16-30
Palm Sunday               The March of the Cross                      Matthew 21:1-11
Maundy Thursday      The Shadow of the Cross                   John 13:1-17
Good Friday                 At the Cross                                         John 18:1-19:42
Easter                            The Triumphant Sign                        Matthew 28:1-10

I find myself coming back time and time again to a famous quote by George Macleod (a great Scottish preacher & theologian of the mid-twentieth century and founder of the Iona Community):

“I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church.  I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified between two candles but on a cross between two thieves; on the town garbage heap; at a crossroads so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek; at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble, because that is where He died.  And that is what he died about.  And that is where churchmen should be and what churchmanship should be about.”

Likewise the great old hymn “Lift High the Cross” rings in my ears offering us advice.  “Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim till all adore His sacred name.” The opening verse both invites and challenges us to enter fully into a theology of the cross suitable for Lent.  “Come, Christians, follow this triumphant sign”  (“Lift High the Cross,” The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 159, chorus and verse 1).

The Importance of Reading

John Wesley required the early Circuit Riders (preachers) to read regularly.  One of the preachers complained that he did not have the habit of reading.  Wesley had little patience with a lack of inquisitiveness and laggardly learning habits.  He is reported to have replied, “The good brother will either develop the habit of reading or leave the ministry.”

Those who know me well know that I am a self-confessed book-a-holic.  Science Fiction is my mind candy.  Deeper theological work is my study.  In recent years I have made a point to read books on leadership.  (I highly recommend Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage.  We are working through implications and insights gained from this book in both the Cabinet and the Bishops’ TMF Conclave.)

Early in my ministry I received some wise advice from a number of older (and very much wiser!) colleagues.  They include but are not limited to: a) read at least one biography a year (don’t always read on religious figures); 2) read one book on preaching a year; 3) occasionally challenge yourself with writers and theologians you know you don’t necessarily agree with; 4) the reading or lack of it will show up in your preaching 6 or 7 months later.

On my blog site I regularly update it with those books that I am reading (usually about 6 times a year or every other month).  Currently I am slowly reading my way through Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.  It was the winner of the 2007 Templeton Prize.  It is a very deep read, some 800+ pages, and expensive. (Check it out of the library and see if you really want to work through it before purchasing!)  Over Christmas break I listened to Malcom Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants.  (It was fascinating and a lot of fun.  And by the way, yes, listening to an Audio Book counts!)Books-and-iPad_sm

The third book on my current list is written by one of our own, David Alexander, who currently serves as Directing Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Mansfield.  It is an excellent book for those searching for a faith and questioning faith perspective.  I heartily recommend it to pastors and lay leaders as a book they might want to give to seekers.

I asked David to give me a couple of brief paragraphs on the book and where you could get it.  He writes: “The Deep End is organized around some of the most difficult questions that I believe every person of faith must wrestle with at some point in their journey. They are questions I have grappled with in my own journey. In my work as a pastor, these are questions that people ask me all the time. And while the whole notion of pursuing these questions can be a bit unsettling, I’m convinced that this pursuit is precisely what propels us further on our journey.

You can find The Deep End on Amazon at this link [http://amzn.com/B00HB8H7CI]. Quantity discounts for churches interested in using the book for classes and small groups are also available by emailing me directly. [davida@fmcm.org].”

I’ve got some new books I’m starting on (a part of my disease is that I am always reading more than one book).  I am 62 pages into Alister McGrath’s (former Oxford scholar now at the University of London) Mere Apologetics: How to Help Seekers and Skeptics Find Faith.  So far it is a superb reworking of the differences between apologetics and evangelism.  He lays out how they relate and yet are distinctly separate.  Even more importantly, McGrath offers concrete help in understanding how to engage in apologetics in a post-modern age.  I commend it to you!

The Prisoner’s Prayer

In May of 2008 Jolynn took a trip to Ethiopia with the group from the University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) in San Antonio (where she was serving as a faculty member).  The trip was led by a retired Lutheran Missionary whose place on the UIW faculty she had taken.  This missionary (Jim Sorensen) had served in hospital work in Ethiopia prior to the Marxist revolution in 1974.  The Marxist regimen known as the Derg (a short name of the Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police, and Territorial Army that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1987) literally wrecked this great historic nation.  Hundreds of thousands of political enemies of the regime were kill or tortured in a period known as the “red terror.”  Later in 1984, over 1 million died in a serve famine.  Finally that evil regime was booted out and the country has engaged in a long slow climb back to economic and political health.  As the UIW group toured the country, they encountered a great Christian history and witness that reached back to story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8.  The rock churches of Lalibela (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) are witness of great faith.  But this small band of pilgrims from San Antonio encountered an even greater witness of faithfulness.  They discovered an Ethiopian Orthodox Church that is alive and well despite “toils and tribulations.”

The above long paragraph serves as backdrop for the following story which I recently read in John Ortberg’s marvelous book Who is This Man?: The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus.  Pastor Ortberg writes:

“Years ago I was in Ethiopia when it was under a Marxist regime and the church was mostly underground. One or another of the leaders of the Christian group would frequently be arrested and put into prison, which was horribly over-crowded and unspeakably foul. Other prisoners used to long for a Christian to get put in prison, because if a Christian was jailed, his Christian friends would bring him food – actually, far more food than that one person could eat, and there would be leftovers for everybody. It became the ‘prisoner’s prayer’: ‘God, send a Christian to prison.’”  (From Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus by John Ortberg, p. 43)

I find myself inspired in reading this story.  We speak of radical hospitality, as well we should.  Here radical hospitality was lived at a level I find almost unimaginable.  It is tempting in the blessed security of a North America to view ourselves as the center of the Christian universe.  This is not so.  There is a line from the great hymn “The Voice of God is Calling” (No. 436, The United Methodist Hymnal, verse 4) which reads:

“From ease and plenty save us; from pride of place absolve;
Purge us of low desire; lift us to high resolve;
Take us, and make us holy; teach us Your will and way;
Speak, and behold! we answer; command, and we obey!”

I am struck by the connections of courage and faith, hospitality and witness, conviction and obedience.  I cannot help but wonder.  I need to be saved from ease and plenty and lifted to high resolve.  I must ask myself, am I the kind of Christian who is an answer to such a prayer?  Am I the kind of Christian who visit those in jail with such bounty?

Joyful & Triumphant – Really?

I realize full well that it is January 17th but I am still stuck on Advent and Christmastide and their resulting connection to Epiphany Season. The word “epiphany” means a manifestation, a making known, an appearing. For Christians in particular the season of Epiphany connects the birth of the Savior with the arrival of the Magi (or wise men) on January 6th. It is the celebration of the light of Christ coming to the gentiles (those who are non-believers).

With that reminder as a backdrop, I invite the reader to step with me back into Advent and Christmas. The great hymns of the season float through heart and mind. In the days immediately after Christmas and leading up to Epiphany, I found myself stuck on a familiar refrain. Do you remember the great hymn “O Come, All Ye Faithful”? It is opens with the line: “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, O come ye, O come ye, to Bethlehem” (Hymn No. 234, The United Methodist Hymnal). It sounds so full and wonderful! But wait a minute, “joyful and triumphant?” Really?

I get the joyful part. Who doesn’t? We are joyful because of God in Christ being born in a manager for us and for all. But triumphant? Really? It is here that the Christian claim takes a giant step into the bizarre.

In the so-called “West” (America and Europe), the steady decline of Christianity hardly makes this feel like a triumphant rendering of good news. The move from Christendom to a post-Christendom age feels threatening and confusing not triumphant. Read the paper or watch the evening news, there is still a brutal civil war in Syria. Afghanistan is still a bloody morass. We are still deeply divided as a nation on a host of social issues. Families up and down the spectrum of economics, ethnicity, marital status, and region still struggle mightily. Spiritually we are still a culture adrift from moral roots and saturated by the idols of personal preference and pleasure. The list could go on and on. Despair can seem like a reasonable response to the trials of modern living.

Joyful and triumphant? Really? Yes, amazingly enough, really. Our joy is not just for December 25th. It is for January 17th and all the other days of the year. Why do Christians dare sing about being triumphant? They (WE!) brazenly proclaim the transformation of human life and society in the name of the God with us. Christ’s appearing, epiphany, demonstrates God’s love and affirmation. Charles Wesley wrote of this in a little-sung Christmas hymn.

“He deigns in flesh to appear,
Widest extremes to join;
To bring our vileness near,
And make us all divine,
And we the life of God shall know,
For God is manifest below.” (Charles Wesley, “Let Earth and Heaven Combine”)

Far from a time to be lost in the doldrums, this is a season to be joyful and triumphant! What a wonderful January! What a great time to be in ministry together! Human heartache and divine love are welded together in the Son. The strife of ours or any time has met its match in the very present love of God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Joyful and triumphant? Absolutely! We need to “Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere!”

GREAT MISSIONAL GENEROSITY

Numbers never tell the whole story.  At the same time, numbers (or metrics) do offer critical insight that must not be ignored.  One yearly numbers (or metrics) ritual in the United Methodist Church is a year-end close out of Connectional Mission Giving.  It is an important mile-post in our collective understanding of covenant with one another and our missional responsibility with the larger church. I vastly prefer the language of Connection Mission Giving or CMG to the old tired label of apportionments.  Apportionments sound like taxes; and who likes taxes?!  In reality, the year-end payout is a witness to our missional generosity, our wider connection in serving the Lord Jesus Christ and the “least of this my brothers and sisters” (Matthew 25:40).  These financial resources are used both locally and globally.  Places like West, Cleburne and Granbury benefited directly in tornado relief because of our great missional generosity.  Future pastors were educated in seminaries and children live today in America and Africa because of CMG.  (As a rough formula approximately 60% of a local church’s CMG goes to missional outreach through the church both locally and globally.  The remaining 40% goes to pay for what a business person would call “overhead.”  It is worth noting that the so called non-denominational churches spend a similar amount in overhead though in a different way.)

Link the above brief explanation of CMG with one of the basic elements of Christian discipleship – extravagant generosity.  In our vows as Methodist Christians, we commit to serve the Lord and His church through our gifts, our stewardship of our resources.  In numerous ways Jesus himself stresses the importance of such faithfulness with our gifts. “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24).

So how did we, The Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church, do in 2013 in missional generosity?  At this point the report is only preliminary but the metrics tell a story of outstanding missional generosity!

Overall “payout to CMG” went up 4.08%.  This represents an increase of $188,712.  Outstanding!  Well done thou good and faithful servants!

According to David Stinson, Comptroller/Treasurer of the Central Texas Conference, pay out by the numbers consists of the following data for CMG:

97.23% Paid in CMG in 2013
93.15% Paid in CMG in 2012

269 Churches Paid 100% in 2013
257 Churches Paid 100% in 2012

30 Churches Paid Less than 100% in 2013
40 Churches Paid Less than 100% in 2012

20 Churches Paid 100% in 2013 but not in 2012
10 Churches Paid 100% in 2012 but not in 2013

247 Churches Paid 100% in 2013 and in 2012
209 Churches Paid 100% in 2013 and in each of the previous 5 years
185 Churches Paid 100% in 2013 and in each of the previous 10 years
(Those who are into careful counting and analysis will discover that the number of churches reported does not match the number of churches in the Conference.  This is because a few churches have not yet filed a report; additionally, this report is preliminary and needs refinement.  Still it is essentially accurate and represents a great increase!  We hope to reach 100% to the General Church when all the work is completed.)

I am proud to be the Bishop of The Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Great is our faithfulness in Connectional Mission Giving!  Again I stress, well done thou good and faithful servants of the Lord!

CONSIDER WELL

“Good people all, this Christmas time,
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God has done,
In sending His beloved Son.”

With those opening lines from the famous Wexford Carol, I invite us to pause on this epiphany day.  It is easy, right and proper to celebrate with great joy that God has come to us humans in a baby named Jesus.  On Epiphany Day (January 6th), a day of celebration of the Light of God coming to gentile non-believers, what God has done merits our full-throated joy in entering this new year of our Lord, 2014.

But the Wexford Carol rightly invites us to do more.  It calls us to consider well the meaning, implications and consequences of God’s actions.  In language that Dr. Stephen Seamands shared with Central Texas Clergy on our recently Clergy Day Apart, we are to consider well not only the what — God coming to earth in the person of Jesus, but the so what — that is, how does reality change for us and for “good people all” in considering well what God has done.

It is so easy, too easy (!), to start the first full work week of the New Year trying to go back to “normal.”  I readily confess that this is my natural instinct and constant tendency.  Yet rightly does the early Christian movement call our attention to the season and time of Epiphany.

By tradition the wise men (Magi) arrived on January 6th.  (On the twelfth day of Christmas and all that.)  Consider well, who were the supposed wise men or Magi?  They were gentile unbelievers; probably followers of Zoroasterism.  Where did they come from?  Probably someplace in what is today Iran or Iraq.  What did they do?  They bowed in worship and, offering gifts, paid homage to the baby Jesus as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Whoa!  Run that line again!  “They bowed in worship and, offering gifts, paid homage to the baby Jesus as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”  Matthew 2 is stunning in its affirmation of the baby Jesus as the true Lord and ruler over secular governments and politicians (Rome and Herod).  The passage challenges us not only to offer gifts but to give our ultimate allegiance to Jesus the Christ!  This strange triad from the east (or was it more than 3?) don’t just invite; by their actions they demand that we give our full worship to Jesus and to none other.  This demand of full allegiance includes His obvious rule over secular authorities. It also involves reign and rule over my own preferences and pleasures.  All take a backseat to the rule and reign of Jesus, the Lord of Lords and King of Kings.

Furthermore, the “so what” takes a giant leap in its inclusive conviction that all (even those I don’t think are deserving) are offered life under Christ’s Lordship.  Herod gets the what of Jesus; there is a new king in town threatening his rule.  Herod can’t fathom the “so what;”  all are included and offered new life under Christ’s reign and rule.   This is wrapped in the salvation package begun at Christmas and dimly recognized by the wise men of old.  It is still true today.  Offering my allegiance, I am given the gift of a new year of our Lord — 2014!

Journey into the New Year

In my last blog I invited us to walk with the Holy Family on their flight into Egypt.  Let’s continue with Matthew’s post-Christmas journey, which is often called the flight of Holy Family.  It is well that we remember that God entered this world in a helpless baby as a part of a refugee family.

The story of Christmas continues with the guidance from God.  And just maybe this is the second significant lesson we might gain from the return of the Holy family.  The story continues with an angel again guiding them.  “When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’  Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.” (Matthew 2:19-21)

Think about it for a moment.  The cardinal conviction of Christmas is that God is with us.  The entire story, the celebration of the season, hangs on this stupendous conviction.  The Bible tells us that God continues be with us.  To be sure God is present in the baby Jesus but just as well God is present in the guidance which comes through the angel.  As life returns slowly back to normal.  Faith would lead us to be receptive to God’s guidance in our lives.  Christmas is over, but it isn’t over at all.  The presence of God in the world guiding the Holy Family and us as well continues.

Come with me now to the close of a story that is over, but not over.  This close of the story is an invitation to journey into the New Year.  “And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.  There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’” (Matthew 2:22-23)

“Aristotle said boldly that God is not a bungling dramatist, who lets irrelevancies slip, for no reason, into the plot.  Everything in it is there for some end; and before the curtain falls, will be seen to have had its own necessary part to play in the unfolding of the story, in the working out of the predestine plan.” (Original source unknown)

Here the story comes to a close with our twin themes of obedience and guidance ever present.  The strange and circuitous return of the holy family ends with settling in Nazareth to fulfill the prophesy.  Joseph and Mary with the baby Jesus set up a normal life like regular people – all under the watchful unfolding of God’s divine plan.  If we would learn nothing else this day, let us reflect in awe that God is in charge.  The Christmas story will continue playing itself out to the cross and beyond under the divine guidance of a God who is finally in charge.

Fate is blind, inescapable and an impersonal course of human life – without reason or purpose.  Destiny implies what the word means – that there is a destination, a point or purpose to the venture.  We are a people of destiny not fate; we people of faith not happenstance; we are people of purpose not aimless wandering.  The return of the Holy Family happens in such a way as to invite us to return to our families or own regular lives trusting that when all is said and done, God is in charge.  It is this truth that allows us to journey with hope, faith and yes, love into the New Year – “The Year of Our Lord 2014.”

After Christmas Rejoicing

After Christmas, all you can say about Christmas is that it’s over. And as a Christian, holding the gospel story in your hands, all you can say about Christmas is that it’s not over.  Now comes the return.

Power ever threatened by the reign of God swings into action with horrifying consequences.  King Herod moves to remove the threat to his rule but God is not finished.  An angelic messenger appears once again to guide the holy family.  “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” (Matthew 2:13)

We are mistaken if we look to events like Christmas and Easter as fairytale triumphs.  There is no charming “and they lived happily ever after” closing the Christmas story.  Rather we encounter Joseph once again modeling faithfulness in the return.  Verse 14 instructs us:  “Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt.” (Matthew 2:14)  Joseph did as he was commanded.  He obeyed the Lord’s messenger.  Here in this simple line we have a message for us this day.

What are we to do when the lights are taken down and the ornaments put away?  We are to obey God in faithful living.  It is in such faithful obedience that the Christmas Spirit, the Holy Spirit, triumphs.  Joseph did what any father tries to do.  As best he could, he protected his family.  There is nothing particularly heroic in his actions.  He didn’t raise a conquering army.  He didn’t form a guerrilla movement to counteract the attack of Herod.  He was obedient to God and fled taking his family to safety.  This little read continuation of the Christmas story invites us to cherish the triumph of Christmas by being obedient to God just as Joseph was.  Christmas is over, but it isn’t really over.  Now is the time of return.

The news is good even amidst bad things happening.  Why?  God is with us!  This is the true reason to rejoice in the return.

 

 

GOOD NEWS OF GREAT JOY!

In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.

Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.

10 The angel said, “Don’t be anativity_stained glassfraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. 11 Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. 12 This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, 14 “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”

15 When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” 16 They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. 18 Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. 20 The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told.

(The Gospel of Luke, 2:1-20)

May you this Christmas (literally Christ-mass) reveal the good news of great joy, Jesus Christ is born!  …. For you, for us, for all people!

Bishop Mike Lowry

 

 

 

The Perfect Christmas Gift

The perfect Christmas gift is given.  It is not found under the tree but first discovered out in the stable.  As the giver gives the gift, only one more thing is needed.  Again the story found in Luke’s gospel is instructive.

These low class, no account people called shepherds got it right.  They received the gift.  They didn’t stand around wondering or go immediately back to work as if nothing had happened.  “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”  So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.  When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; . . . The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Luke 2:15-17, 20).

They, the least deserving, received the perfect gift from God the giver, the very person of God in the form of a helpless vulnerable baby born to and for all people.  They acted on the reception of this greatest of gifts.  They worshipped and shared the gift with others by telling the story and by how they reached out in love to others.

A great preacher named Forsberg once recalled an incident that happened to him while he was standing in a post office line just before Christmas.  The man ahead of him in line was mailing a birthday gift to a friend born on Christmas day.  “The post office worker shook his head and commented, ‘Boy, that guy’s a loser.  Imagine having a birthday on Christmas.  One present fits all.  Thank God I don’t know of anyone born on Christmas Day.’  The man just behind Dr. Forsberg whispered rather loudly, ‘Thank God I do.’”

What about you?  The greatest gift, the perfect gift is given by God the giver.  It is the gift of God’s love, favor and salvation in the very person of God found in the vulnerable human form of a baby.  Will you receive this gift?  Will you unwrap this package given from God to you?

My friend and colleague Milton Lewis, Pastor of Northern Hills United Methodist Church in San Antonio, remembered the year the perfect gift was supposed to be Elmo.  He wrote perceptively:  “Do you find it curious and mildly disturbing that everyone’s looking for Elmo while no one’s looking for Jesus? Jesus has been here all along. Jesus is available every year. I guess the novelty of Jesus has just worn off.

“I guess that’s the meaning of the bumper sticker, “Wise Men Still Seek Him.” The One who sneaked quietly into human history.  The One who came to set us free and give us eternal life. The One who fills life with meaning. The One who, once you know Him, you aren’t so worked up about whether you have an Elmo or not. Jesus, even though He is available to all and free to all, is still worth seeking. Still worth finding. Still worth knowing. The wise still seek Him.

“Elmos come and go. Jesus endures. You play with Elmo awhile, then you get tired of Elmo and toss him in the closet. Jesus stays with you, abides with you, fills your life with direction and purpose and joy and hope.

“If you come looking for Jesus, you will find Him. We have plenty of Jesus in stock. So this Christmas I urge you: Give your life to Jesus. Jesus, not Elmo, is your passport to eternal life” (Rev. Milton Lewis, Pastoral Letter, Northern Hills United Methodist Church, December, 1996).

This baby is the perfect Christmas gift.  He is God’s gift to us, to all of us.  For now, let us simply receive this perfect gift given by the giver in love. “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10).

May we revel in the joy of this present; the wonder and love of it.  God enters the world for our sake through a homeless refugee couple and we, like the shepherds of old, are invited to receive the gift of God’s very person given in love.  Later, much may be required of us; later, we may respond in many ways; but at this time our greatest act can be simply to receive and enjoy this gift.

In this perfect gift there is here for us:

More light than we can learn,
More wealth than we can treasure,
More love than we can earn,
More peace than we can measure,
Because one child is born.”
(Christopher Frey)

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